Working on 'Unseeing Thailand'

Not too long ago, I decided to act upon a long held desire to volunteer my time to some good cause in the society in which I choose to live. Maybe I wanted to pretend that I was a good person for a while. It's not kindness if you expect something in return but I wasn't sure if deep down inside I didn't really have some ulterior motive concerned with offsetting past sins and resurrecting a healthy balance in the black with the bank of karma that some feel governs us all. My cynicism in life is often self-directed. Still, I had found myself in the fortunate circumstance of having a free year and I wanted to make sure that it wasn't entirely wasted. Contact was made and meetings arranged and before I really had had much of a chance to fully absorb the gravity of the situation, there I was teaching blind Thai children a few times a week. 

I had often thought it would be good to try and work in the special needs area of education and although I knew it would be difficult, I didn't really know much more than that. It proved to be a steep learning curve. The thing that hit me the most every time I was there was perhaps just how hidden in plain sight of the public the whole thing was. Located in the heart of a huge metropolis, the goings on should have been a common enough sight to the rest of society and yet most of them presumably had just as little idea as I had about what life was like inside such a place catering exclusively to blind and visually impaired children.

The role facilitated  a situation in which anyone would find themselves emotionally affected and often it's hard to prepare for this, the only way is to just do it and dive right into the deep end. The insides of the school itself were depressing from the outset. The large expanses of gates and wire mesh surrounds seem like something from a Soviet Gulag until you realise that they are there to prevent the kids from falling into or off things. I'll never forget the first time the bell rang and I saw fifty to sixty blind kids on the top floor sprint towards the steep concrete staircase, racing to establish a pecking order for the three storey descent. Amazingly they all knew exactly how far away it was and exactly where to stand and nobody tripped or tumbled down it, my heart was in my throat for a while. The walls were grey and equally prison blockesque. The floors had lines of bright paint in different colours to aid those students who are not completely blind in navigating their way around the school. To me, they looked like they were painted by some communist regime to force everyone into remembering how happy they ought to feel.  The classrooms had little or no decoration on the walls as personalising the learning environment in such a way hardly seems appropriate given the circumstance. Wall mounted moribund TV's hang from old brackets on the wall, the kids don't even know they are there and their power cords dangle away unplugged as a perfect sad metaphor. In short, very depressing.

Truth is, after a while I realised that these kids were just like any others. They were often very happy and had fun at school and most of the sadness was just me projecting my own feelings and initial culture shock onto the situation. Given time, it became much more normal and I gained a valuable insight into their lives and unfortunate happenstance.

After one term of thinking how great it would be to be able to take pictures and document this experience and the lives of these kids, I finally plucked up the courage to ask if I could shoot there and was delighted when the teacher got back to me with a green light on behalf of the school and students concerned and releases were fine.  It is an oft heard ideal in photojournalism that one should not affect or in any way impact upon the subject and just report and collect what is there to be seen as though invisible. Although a nice idea, I have always found this somewhat paradoxical as surely by your very presence in a situation, one can't help but alter it. It's akin to walking through a field of freshly fallen snow and then turning around and pretending not see your own footprints. This situation was truly unique in that regard however. The students I worked with were fully aware who I was and we had started to build good relationships. They knew what I was doing in general and I told them myself to make it all clear. That said, because of their blindness, they typically didn't know exactly when I was or wasn't shooting as I had opted for a very quiet camera set up so as to not disturb anyone. Initially I wrestled with the ethical side of the situation a few times, it felt uncomfortable at first but it wasn't the reason that I had initially gone there and I had been given full permission to shoot and had already started to form good bonds with the subjects. I was keen to portray them without taking any of their dignity and I had to abandon several of my own pre-determined misconceptions along the way. They weren't just 'blind kids', they were kids I knew and I worked with them daily at school.  I was the only Westerner available to volunteer for the school during this period which made me something of an odd one out. The other teachers around the school gradually went from looking at me with some suspicion to smiling at me as the volunteer guy who always has a camera with him. I didn't realise it at the time but looking back through some of the shots now, it seems to be as though I truly were the invisible man and my presence didn't cause any change in the subjects or their actions. I moved to keep out of their way and I felt them flowing around me as I shot, an outsider hidden within and no one else around on my side of the equation.  I perhaps felt like a thespian on stage who turns to deliver his soliloquy to an audience only to find that there’s nobody in the theatre. Walking through the snow with no footprints indeed, surreal.

I took a camera with me every day I worked there and the focus (no pun intended) was on my role working with the children as a priority over anything else, the shots were simply taken as a by product of that and only when the moments presented themselves rather than me going out and hunting. However, if I saw something interesting, I sometimes followed along and went with the flow.  I wanted to keep it as simple as possible and so opted for a single camera and lens set up. However, even arriving at that decision was something of a challenge in and of itself. I had three systems to choose from, namely a rangefinder rig, SLR's or TLR's in medium format.  Too many equipment choices in photography is often a bad thing, paralysis by analysis at a time when you should just be taking pictures. If I don't make a concerted effort to call it and get on with my work early on, the tyranny of choice pervades. Finally I opted to shoot the series on a Leica M6 classic with a Leitz 35mm Summilux pre-asph, circa the early eighties. It wasn't necessarily as though I was looking to snob out on gear but there are a few good reasons why this kind of kit was considered de rigueur for discreet reportage for so long. I found that I needed something very quiet and compact and also using scale focusing before each shot enabled me to just quickly raise the camera to my eye for rapid composition, with everything in focus as I made frames on the fly. I think this is where a rangefinder shines, perhaps its raison d'etre.  It was also very dark in some places around the school and the bright Leica viewfinder window proved good for this. The fast film and wide lens gave me lots of depth of field and I was more concerned with capturing real feeling and emotion from this world I found myself in than I was about perfect focus in the final prints. Leica M's are great when set up and used in such a fashion, really in their element. It's true that I could have used an old Canon rangefinder or maybe a cheaper Voigtlander body with the same legacy Leitz glass for basically the same results but there is a certain gestalt to an M that is hard to relinquish for this sort of work once you have tried it. The slight heft, the way the whole chunk of the thing feels in your hand, some kind of sheer Germanic preeminence which lives up to the hype annoyingly well.

My film choice was a rare departure from my usual Tri-X fare and here I opted to shoot the project on Ilford Delta 400 for the whole year. Just fancied a change and I like to support Ilford a bit here and there whenever I can. I bought in bulk early on to ensure I wasn't running out of the chosen stock halfway through a project. My freezer was nicely stocked at home. I don't know why but I have a real issue with shooting different films within the same series. I decided against any pushing and opted to shoot it at box speed of 400 iso. I developed it all in my dev room at home in Ilfotec HC (dilution B) and also used their stop and rapid fix with some Kodak Photo Flo for good measure. Dev times were around six and a half minutes at 20 degrees C.

There are still quite a few places that will soup your black and white films around in Thailand but I am a firm believer in devving your own, especially for black and white. The way I see it, if I hand over my B +W to a lab only one of two things are going to happen: 1) They get it wrong and mess it up in which case I kick myself as I know that my system and experience would have got it right, or: 2) They get it looking beautiful but you personally never really get to find out exactly how they achieved that and what chemicals and times were used and so you can never replicate that yourself nor can you guarantee that they can get it exactly the same if you come back to them again. Neither situation works for me, hence, I do it myself and keep very exacting records of every last factor so that I always know I can get the results the way I want them to look. No sense in being lazy plus I actually find it almost a pleasing and relaxing little discipline at times. If you've never learnt how to dev black and white film but like the idea of shooting it, I highly recommend taking the time to learn. It's not that hard and the initial outlay is far from expensive. The chemicals last for a ridiculously long time and suddenly this kind of film photography becomes a whole lot cheaper and you are no longer relying on other people, which is always good in life. There's also something special about being involved in the back end of the process and not just the shooting, you become more well rounded in your work and gain greater insight into what is going right or wrong with your technique. There are countless pages and video tutorials devoted to this subject all over the web so I shan't add one here. Suffice to say there's nothing like pulling out a reel of well shot and devved negs from a tank and seeing them for the first time as you hang them up to dry.

Shortly after the series was done, I was delighted and honoured to have my work accepted for a small exhibition at 'Photogallery' in Silom, Bangkok.  The work was shown during March 2015 and I received some nice feedback and emails about it.  I learned a lot throughout the experience and it was nice to have done it, I wouldn't rule out maybe helping again one day if circumstances permit.

CCP